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Coca-Cola dives into effort to save water

June 06, 2007|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Coca Cola Co. is launching a conservation program that aims to return more than 75 billion gallons of clean water a year to the environment -- enough to supply Los Angeles for four months.

As the world's largest soft-drink maker, Coke depends on water. But it uses far more in the manufacturing process than in beverages, and most of that winds up as wastewater. Coke aims to account for all the water it uses by reducing its use, recycling and replenishing supplies.

"Our aim is quite simply to establish a water-sustainable business on a global scale," Coke's chief executive, E. Neville Isdell, said Tuesday in Beijing, where he was attending the World Wildlife Fund's annual meeting.

The campaign is part of a partnership Coke is establishing with the environmental group. Isdell portrayed the move as motivated by corporate ethics and good business sense.

Though the conservation plan would save Coke money, he said, "this is not about cost."

Two years ago, Coke was forced to suspend operations at a plant in Kerala, India, after it was accused of depleting scarce groundwater supplies. Isdell said Tuesday that the company believed the charges were baseless and that it was evaluating whether to reopen the plant.

Margaret Catley-Carlson, who chairs the Global Water Partnership, said Coke's announcement was significant. "God and the devil are in the details," she said. But Coke seems to be attacking the problem comprehensively, she said. "If this gets at those basic issues, it will be a very big step forward."

Isdell said Coke had been striving for five years to cut the amount of water it used in manufacturing and had managed to decrease water use by nearly 6%, even as sales volume rose nearly 15%. Now, he said, Coke has set a target of 2010 for "returning all water that it uses for manufacturing processes to the environment at a level that supports aquatic life and agriculture."

To offset the water used in its beverages, Coke said it would undertake replenishment programs including watershed management and support for sustainable communities. It said it would encourage more-efficient water use by suppliers.

Coke also said it was giving $20 million to the wildlife fund, mostly for conservation projects in major river basins.

mitchell.landsberg@ latimes.com

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